In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the liver is part of a bigger whole body based system. that includes not only the physical organ, but also includes a sense organ (the eyes), a median or channel in the body which houses it's acupuncture points (along the inner thighs and runs through the groin and sides of the body) as well as controlling the sinews and tendons in the body in addition to much much more. Each system peaks at a certain time of the year and, it is at this time of year, when new growth, and the budding of new life and ideas abounds, it is our liver system that is at play.
Liver: The Organ
Our liver is responsible for a huge part of our digestion process. As soon as we start to eat, the liver produces enzymes that will help us to break down our food so it is easily absorbed through our digestive tract.
The liver filters all our blood and any extra glucose produced by carbohydrates not used by the body is stored in the liver for future use. The amino acids produced by the digestive tract are turned into enzymes by the liver to help remove toxins produced by the breakdown of protein. AND, the liver (and gallbladder, its paired organ) is also essential for fat breakdown and regulating the fat in the bloodstream constantly. It’s working hard!
Liver: The System
Chinese Medicine views the body like an ecosystem and we always look for patterns that exist in the body to identify sources of illness or disease. By understanding the deeper messages and signs the body is sending out, we have an opportunity to see the big picture of our health and use food, lifestyle and emotional work to heal deeply and rebalance.
Our Liver system is part of the Wood system in 5-element theory and shows up in many different areas – a physical organ, a sense organ, an emotion, season, flavour, time of day just to name a few things.
Often when a person is out of balance, they will see more signs or symptoms will often flare during the ruling season. For example in clinic, I often see more tendon and eye issues, tension headaches, irritability and shoulder tension showing up in the spring time. This makes sense as the liver system governs our tendons and ligaments, our eyes and sight (both internal and external), and has acupuncture points located at the top of the shoulders and base of the skull where many experience pain and discomfort.
This system also shows up in our drive and direction in life as well as our ability to adapt to stress and change. The liver system’s element belongs to the wood system. Ancient doctors and philosophers often used nature to explain patterns of disease and imbalance in the body as the examples are often easy to grasp and understand. When we can see it externally, it's easier to imagine internally. And, in ancient times, the medicine was passed along through oral traditions and much of the population had a rural and farm based life so it was really speaking their language.
So with this knowledge that life mirrors nature, we can look to the tree as a metaphor for health in life. Just as a healthy tree is able to bend and adapt to strong winds and various elements and a hard, brittle or rigid tree will snap and break when faced with those same elements, the same is true for us. By remaining mentally and physically nourished and flexible through our thought patterns and actions, we’re better able to adapt to all life sends our way, bending, adjusting and adapting when needed.
A healthy liver system will show up in many ways:
Flexibility both in body (healthy tendons and easy movement) and mind (a flexible attitude and adaptability).
Stable mood and hormonal balance
Healthy drive and direction in life with a sense of purpose
Clear moist eyes and stable hormones
When we’re off of balance in our liver system we may experience symptoms such as:
Irritability or frustration with a tendency to anger quickly or get depressed easily
Rigid or inflexible and stiff body and/or mental attitude. Being stuck on a certain idea, believing in only one right way and not letting go.
Shoulder or neck tension and hormonal imbalances such as PMS, irritability or mood swings.
Dry, itchy or red eyes with decreased eyesight
Sighing a lot or a feeling of tightness in the flank/rib cage area
Insomnia particularly with waking at1-3 am or waking with a busy stressed mind
Luckily there are many simple ways to love your liver and help this system cleanse and regenerate – mentally, spiritually and physically.
Liver Loving Tips:
Avoid over eating and eating late at night. Eating late makes your body work on digesting instead of resting, detoxing and rejuvenating which is what it’s supposed to do in the sleeping hours. The liver’s ‘time’ according the TCM wisdom is actually 11pm-3am so allowing it to rest, with an empty stomach at that time is ideal.
Cut out any refined food including sugar, alcohol and unhealthy fats
Choose Healthy Fats: olive oil, avocados, omega 3’s found in wild salmon or grass fed meats (in small amounts)
Think Green! Just like all the fresh new green we see sprouting up all over the place, these foods are ideal for your liver system. Green foods contribute to new, fresh blood production and aid the liver in detoxification. Cilantro, parsley, dandelion greens, and bitter greens like rapini, arugula and romaine are some of the best foods for the liver and for a spring liver loving detox
Citrus – lemon and lime have a great ‘moving’ and detoxing element to them. Starting your day with warm lemon or lime water and being sure to squeeze some over your fresh greens as it is a great way to help you get maximum absorption of the greens and cleanse.
Broccoli, onions, garlic, bok choy, cauliflower…they all contain sulfur which is key to helping to remove excess estrogens from the body
Limit toxic exposure – non-organic foods, skin products, unfiltered water or water and foods stored in plastic can all add to our toxic load and burden the liver
Egg it up. Yes eggs! Gone is the belief that the cholesterol found in egg yolks is bad for you. Research shows that the component choline found in egg yolks and some other cholesterol rich foods actually has a beneficial and essential for normal liver metabolism. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus and spinach also all contain choline.
MOVE!! The liver system loooooves movement. Just think how you feel after exercise. Maybe you started out grumpy, irritated or upset, but slowly but surely as the minutes tick on and the sweat starts to build…you feel better. Our liver system shows up with anger and frustration when off balance (or when a healthy line has been crossed) but it also is the system that offers forgiveness and kindness when nourished and healthy.
Mental Detox: Look at your mental attitudes – are you feeling overly rigid in something in your life? Are you unwilling to bend to meet life in some area?
De-Stress. Look at the biggest areas of stress in your life and take stock – do you need to do everything you’re doing? Can you shift the way you are doing things and try a new approach?
The middle path: Look at areas of your life you are pushing too hard or areas you are holding back. Adapting to the flow of life is key. I love the saying "You can't push a river" - life has plans and sometimes things have a timeline that is much different than our own. Learning to take a breath and trust that things come in their own time - Just like the spouts in the garden, which you can't rush or make grow any faster. If you notice yourself pushing and getting resistance, take a step back and loosen your agenda. If you find yourself collapsing in the face of a challenge though, this might be the time to stimulate a bit of verve and, just like that little seed pushing it's way through the spring earth, approach life and challenges with some much needed spunk and determination. It's all about that balance!
Stretch it out. Incorporate some gentle stretching into your life – yoga, tai chi or some other form of gentle stretching can be incredibly helpful for bringing healthy nourishment into your tendons and ligaments. Stretches that bring length into the side body or inner legs and groin area are best as these are the liver and Gall Bladder channels and by stretching them, you are bringing new life and energy into this system.
Loving your liver is simple and easy to do on a regular basis but in this spring season, a little extra liver love will go a long way!